Who’s going to claim the eighth seed in the West?

The eighth seed in the Western Conference is up for grabs – who wants it?

 

The fight for a playoff seed in the NBA’s Western Conference has been a bloodbath for more than a decade. Ten to 12 great teams usually battle for a top-eight seed and expectations for this season were no different. USA Today sportswriter Martin Rogers dubbed the Western Conference as “the wild, wild west”, stating it’s “a conference where you don’t even have to be bad in order to look really, really bad.” SB Nation sportswriter Tom Ziller followed up by claiming “among the West’s 15 teams, only two are expected to scrape the cellar: The Grizzlies and the Suns. The other 13 could be competitive.”

 

An abundance of injury plagued, and underperforming teams have changed the Conference’s dynamic completely. Whilst in the past few years the battle for a playoff spot had been a slugfest, a subpar team could find themselves lacing up their sneakers this postseason. There are six playoff locks (Lakers, Nuggets, Clippers, Rockets, Mavericks, Jazz) and the Thunder’s recent success should see them favoured for another postseason appearance, too. The remainder of the West are just flat out weak. To put it in perspective, the win differential between the seven seed (20-16) and eight seed (14-20) is larger than the differential between the eight seed and 14 seed (12-24).

 

Such tight congestion among seven teams wrestling for the final playoff position sounds like a fiery, enthralling race. However, if the recent trend of uninspiring play and embarrassing losses continue (like the Trailblazers falling to the Knicks by 24 earlier this week. I mean, seriously?), the final playoff spot may be secured in Steven Bradbury-esque style – lucking into the playoffs by other competing teams falling over at the death.

 

With the February 6 trade deadline approaching, these middle-of-the-road western teams need to decide whether they’ll look to make trades to push for the playoffs, give up on the playoff race and trade valuable players for future assets, or sit on their hands and watch their current roster play out the season, usually for development. Results over the next month are crucial for team managements’ perception of their franchises, deciding which route to take. It will determine which teams will fight and which teams will fold in this playoff hunt.

 

In the rumble for the eight seed, it seems only two teams have any real chance of making the playoffs.

 

Firstly, the 15-22 Portland Trailblazers.

 

After a remarkable 2018-19 campaign that saw the Trailblazers reach the Western Conference Finals – who could forget Damian Lillard’s iconic series-clinching buzzer beater against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round – this year they’ve endured the season from hell. Key players like Jusuf Nurkic, Zach Collins, Rodney Hood and Skal Labissiere are all facing potential season-ending injuries, plus a handful of rotation players facing minor back complaints. The team’s lack of size and sheer player unavailability has wiped its championship aspirations for this year, which were not unreasonable. Before the season started, SB Nation sportswriter Dave Deckard, said “the Blazers need to tune their attitude towards championship contention, which means not settling for anything else.”

 

Despite their misfortunes, the Trailblazers still have their star backcourt tandem, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, available. Sure, they’ve struggled of late, but generally superstars can singlehandedly drag their team to the playoffs in the NBA, and Lillard can certainly do that. Accompanied by new acquisition former all-star Carmelo Anthony, the Trailblazers have the offensive firepower to make the playoffs, even if their locker room resembles more of a hospital emergency ward than a locker room right now.

 

The team to rival the Trailblazers for the eight seed is the Phoenix Suns.

 

That’s right, the same franchise that only last year finished with a league worst 19-63 record. The same franchise that hasn’t made the postseason since 2010, the second longest playoff drought leaguewide. The same franchise whose recent offseason moves were graded an “F” by Yahoo Sports writer Ben Rohrbach who called out the Suns by saying they were “stumbling through the offseason with no clear direction…It is unclear if any of the Suns’ deals made them better than they would have been by standing pat.” In short, nobody saw them going anywhere.

 

After a hot 5-2 start, the Suns have faltered to a disappointing 14-22 record. But while other competing teams’ short-term goals are uncertain approaching the trade deadline, Phoenix are hellbent on breaking their playoff drought. Suns General Manager James Jones traded four future picks in the offseason to surround their budding superstar Devin Booker with an upgrade in talent, clearly indicating a desperation to appease disgruntled fans and Booker, who seems to be growing in frustration with the Suns annual shortcomings. Before last season Booker stated, “I’m done with not making the playoffs. This is probably the last year I’m ever not making the playoffs.”

 

Losing the 2018 number one draft pick Deandre Ayton to a 25-game suspension just one game into the season was brutal and seemed a portent for another miserable Suns season. But this professional basketball team approached it like, well, how an aspiring playoff team should, which can’t be said for recent Suns teams. Newly acquired Australian big man Aron Baynes filled Ayton’s role exceptionally well during his suspension and the rest of the squad stood up too, filling the scoring void and allowing them to hang in playoff contention. With Ayton’s recent return to the starting line-up, accompanied by the Suns newfound swagger, accentuated by the clutch shot-making and antics of recent recruit Kelly Oubre Jr., the Suns playoff dream is very real. Having won three of their last five games, Phoenix would be salivating over their upcoming schedule of Sacramento, Orlando, Charlotte, Atlanta, New York. You can’t ask for an easier run than that nearing the trade deadline.

 

The 14 seed New Orleans Pelicans could be a playoff wildcard, with growing speculation that Zion Williamson, the 2019 number one draft pick, could debut later this month. However, reports surfaced last week that the Pelicans are teaching Williamson “how to walk and run differently” since he underwent arthroscopic surgery to repair a torn lateral meniscus he suffered in October. I’ll believe his January return when I see it.

 

As for the other teams in the race?

 

Sacramento have been battered with key injuries this year, most notably losing De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley III for long periods. The Kings season fell off the rails, they’ve now lost nine of their last 10 games and players are voicing their displeasure and requesting trades. Good luck in the lottery.

 

Minnesota have lost 13 of their last 17 games and with their superstar Karl-Anthony Towns sidelined, it’s not going to get any better.

 

Memphis have exceeded expectations thus far, with their tantalising rookie Ja Morant and promising sophomore Jaren Jackson Jr. leading the way in scoring. With a young core, it’s in their best interest to continue building through the draft before competing prematurely, which may be inevitable as the two 20-year-olds scoring duties are a lot to rely on.

 

San Antonio haven’t missed the playoffs since 1997. That’s almost a quarter of a century but their historic playoff streak is finally coming to an end. With aging stars Demar Derozan and Lamarcus Aldridge clearly running out of gas, the Spurs have significantly underperformed, and their ceiling will only continue to shrink as the duo grow older. Derozan is strongly rumoured to be shipped elsewhere and Aldridge will likely be available for trade, too. Spurs’ management are admired as forward thinkers and talent evaluators leaguewide, consistently finding needles in the haystack on draft night. Expect them to blow it up and focus on developing their youth.

 

 

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Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.

 

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Comments

  1. San Antonio looking good now. Something’s clicked. Can’t see the Suns getting it. And my Blazers half a chance if Nurk and Collins come back to near their best.

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